Walking Among the Dead - Part 4
My 'little thing' came at an unusual and unexpected time, not on any mission, but on a ride to a formal dinner. Driving down the George Washington Parkway, a narrow, dark and curvy road that slants from the Washington Beltway down towards the center of the city, my wife and I were in, perhaps, the third or fourth car to stop behind a serious accident. I walked up to see if I could help, the police or fire trucks hadn't yet arrived and saw that an oncoming car had hit the narrow low median and gone airborne, turning over. It had caromed off a car in my lanes and come to a stop, upside down. All this had all happened perhaps thirty seconds before; the wreckage was still ticking and I could smell gasoline, perhaps from ruptured tanks.
I asked if anyone had checked to see if the people underneath were alive. No one had and no one seemed interested. It seems pretty incongruous now; I was dressed in Army Mess Dress uniform, but I got on my hands and toes, sort of in a push-up position and edged under the car perhaps three or four feet. I yelled out for some light; someone shown a flashlight and illuminated two upside down faces right in front on me. The passengers were both dead. Somehow, in the crash, part of the car hood caught them both under the chin and pushed their heads back, snapped their necks completely. They weren't disfigured but absolutely completely dead, their necks elongated, flattened and seemingly almost boneless, their heads held up in place by the top backs of the seats.
I worked my way back out, told the crowd that they were dead and got back into my car. My wife said I was calm and unruffled as I pulled around the just-arriving emergency vehicles and drove to the dinner. About an hour later, I got pale, started to shake and my wife pulled me out of the dinner and drove home. I knew I could never see or touch a dead body again – and I haven't.
My past has retreated and I don't mind not being remembered. I still don't, can't eat certain foods, I don't see war movies, am repulsed by the thought of my killing anything and, on my yearly visit to the Vietnam Memorial, have to be careful not to be taken unaware by emotion. Most important of all, in these ensuing years, I know what those experiences have taught me.
Somehow, each of us retains from our childhood a small bit of the belief in our immortality. That we may be hurt but can never die; that tiny scrap of hard-held belief, unrealistic thought, is what allows us to take risks; that somehow we are above the rest, that death cannot touch us.
I no longer think that. I know that I am organs and muscles and blood, held together only by a bag of skin and chance. It has been a sobering revelation but I have come to terms with it.
What can someone who can never be in those situations take away from my experience, and that of every soldier who has actually been there, been 'in the shit', as they say?
I can answer with an old joke which is not so much funny as it is sort of a Zen koan – a parable.
An old soldier says to a civilian:”How many combat veterans does it take to put in a light bulb?”
The civilian: “OK, how many combat veterans does it take to put in a light bulb?”
Answers the soldier:”You can't know, you weren't there.”
So remember this:”You can't know, you weren't there.”
Lew, thank you for your story. You're right, I can't know. And I'm thankful for that. I'm thankful that there are people like you who stepped up and took it for the rest of us while you could.
I sometimes wonder whether I would have what it takes when the chips are down. Maybe, maybe not. I pray I never have to find out. But, I know that I don't and can't know. I haven't been there.
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